Sunday, March 26, 2017

In the All-Night Cafe: A memoir of Belle and Sebastian's formative year - Stuart David (2015)

While I can attest to being a casual fan of Belle & Sebastian, over the first couple years when I was aware of them, perhaps 2001-2003, I tended to agree with my friend that introduced me to most of the indie rock that I would later consume endlessly--that they were "boring."  I should never dare to utter this condemnation aloud, however, because I mostly became exposed to B&S at NYU.  They were quite popular at the time, and many swore by songs like "Get Me Away from Here I'm Dying," and If You're Feeling Sinister in general.  I found it pleasant, but only for a particular mood, like studying or crying.  Well, not crying so much.  I was more into music to cry to at the time, and B&S were not emo, but fey or twee.  Then Dear Catastrophe Waitress came out, and I liked it a bit more, but still found parts a bit boring.  Recently, due to this book I had cause to discover "Your Cover's Blown," which is a B-side from that era, and it's amazing.  Perhaps that was leading into the direction of The Life Pursuit which became my favorite album by them.  I think their last two albums are pretty good, too.  I mention this because, I was embarrassed by not liking B&S enough between 2001-2003.  And it doesn't seem good enough to be a casual fan--they have no casual fans.  I would say this sentiment changed generally if one thinks they've gone more mainstream in the mid-to-late aughts, or they haven't been as good, or lost part of what made them special in the first place.  In any case, if they were into B&S, they were way into them.  

And I mention this because the person who had occasion to recommend this book to me says he does not even like them very much.  He said he thought I should read it because something about it reminded him of my writing.

So naturally, I looked for the thing that was reminiscent of my own work, in style or substance.  First, there was the beginning of the book, which describes an unusual public subsidy, a sort of extremely disorganized music course, that doesn't seem possible in places like the U.S.  I wrote a story ( which imagined a similar "job in the production of creative art."  Second, the attention to the sometimes mundane and seemingly unremarkable detail.  In my case, they are simply unremarkable details, but in Stuart David's case, they seem to indicate a deeper theme of the book.

The first passage that merits mention is something from the beginning of the book, because it is easily one of the most hilarious portions of it.  But there is a touch of something wondrous about it too, that David captures:

"I looked down the list of courses again, even more desperately this time, and it remained a sorry selection: flower arranging, dog grooming, car mechanics.  But then, just when I was on the verge of giving up all hope, something seemed to materialise near the bottom of the page--a late addition, in tiny writing.  A course in Glasgow that appeared to have something to do with popular music.  I thought I might be hallucinating.  I called the flipchart man over and asked him about it.  He took the piece of paper from me and stood starting at it blankly.
'Hmn...' he said after a while.  'I didn't know that was on there.  That sounds strange.'
Then he wrote my name down, said he would look into it for me and sent us all home." (6)

But that is a description of how he came to sign up for it, and it is funnier when he describes what it was actually like:

"One thing that particularly intrigued me, though, as I wandered around, was the poster which hung on at least one wall of every room I went into.
It was a poster of a band, but a band I'd never heard of and they looked like a cross between The Commitments and Take That, if such a cross is possible.  There were seven or eight of them in the photograph, most prominently a woman with pineapple hair who had a saxophone strapped around her neck, and a guy in a vest who was lying on the floor in front of them all, propped up on one elbow, staring seductively into the camera.  I wondered if they were a real band, or if the poster was a fake, rigged up to give the detention centre the illusion of being a music course for the benefit of the inmates.
Time dragged.  All day, nothing happened.  No one played any music, no one even picked up an instrument and held it just to pose.  There didn't seem to be any musical instruments anywhere in the whole building, except for a drum kit with no h-hats and no cymbals in a corner of the freezing-cold live room.  I started to think the day would never end, but then, late in the afternoon, a woman came out of the main office and called me and two or three other people who had started the course that day into the studio control room.  I instantly recognised her as the person holding a saxophone in the band poster plastered on the walls." (11)

Soon, Stuart David meets Stuart Murdoch, and they play with a couple other people, in a couple one-off gigs as bands with different names.  Eventually they settle on the name of Rhode Island, and then finally become Belle & Sebastian.  This is in the mid-1990's in Scotland, so the brit pop scene looms large, and the sound of the band is quite different.  They have always had an original sound.  Murdoch's voice is unmistakable, and nobody sounds like him, though I suppose he sounded a tiny bit like Nick Drake (I only use the past tense because one must acknowledge that B&S are not the same band they used to be, though it does appear that it has always been defiantly Murdoch's).

I had a couple other passages to excerpt, both of which are sort of ensconced in 90's ephemera, but there were two main things I wanted to say about this book.  First, there is the cover.  This looks exactly like a cover of any of the other B&S albums, instantly recognizable and iconic. In that sense, it's a perfect cover.  Second, while it doesn't remind me exactly of Our Band Could Be Your Life, it reads a lot like one of the chapters about the bands in that book.  It takes place in the U.K. in the 90's, not the U.S. in the 80's, but it's definitely indie rock, and a lot of the same influences are in play.  There's also the added element that it is written by an insider and not a journalist or friend of the band.  It's also obviously a lot longer than one of those chapters, but a pretty short book in general.  The main thing that reminds me of it, though, is how it is just about the beginning of the band, and stops after the release of Tigermilk, basically at the point where If You're Feeling Sinister was being recorded.  I believe Stuart David left the band shortly thereafter, but there is no indication of any of the reasons why he would do so--except for it being "Murdoch's band."

There was one other famous group that came out of the same Beatbox recording studio space, and though I had never heard of them, many others must ostensibly have:

"The boy band themselves never seemed to be there.  There was a rumour that they were from Newcastle, and only ever came in at weekends when the course was closed.  But we did see them once, being hurried up through the corridor with towels thrown over their heads to hide their identities.  Before they reached the studio, though, they removed the towels, and they drew a stark contrast with the musicians on the course, the lazy figures sitting on the floor with their backs up against the wall, or lying on the punctured sofas dotted about the place.  They seemed to have come from a different world, a world of airbrushing and plastic moulding.  It was as if they already existed in the world of photographs, even though they were in the corridor.
And then they were gone, ushered into the sanctuary of the control room, and we all agreed that they were going nowhere, destined to disappear into the same oblivion as the band in the posters on the wall.
Their name was 911.
Over they next five years they sold ten million records." (90)

David does mention his love for the band Momus, and how he bonds with another person at Beatbox over him.  His anecdote about listening to his music on the internet is pure nostalgia, though an experience that many probably have not had:

"Semple was another Momus fan, an obsessive on the same level as I had become since Stuart brought me the mixtapes when I was ill.  Momus was probably one of the first artists to have his own website, and he was certainly one of the first to have his songs on there.  Or at least clips of his songs, which even at thirty seconds long stretched the internet to the limit of its capabilities in 1995.  Semple's patience for sitting on the sofa in the office, quietly smoking cigarettes, was limitless--and it needed to be for the specific task of listening to the clips on Momus' website.  When I found out what he was doing in there, I decided I had to get in on it too, and I got permission from Neil to have internet lessons.  This involved me sitting on the sofa beside Semple, while Neil's laptop sat on a desk in a far-off corner of the room, plugged into the phone line and blocking all incoming and outgoing calls to and from the office, while we waited upwards of a quarter of an hour for our next Momus clip to download.  
We were addicts, anxious to hear clips of songs we'd never heard before, and it didn't matter that the quality was so low they sounded as if they were being played to us over the telephone in the 1920s, or that each one cost more to download in phone bill charges than it would have cost to buy the whole album in a shop.  We lived for those thirty seconds of lo-fi magic, sent to us by science fiction from the future, when each one had to be erased from the hard drive before the next one was downloaded because there wasn't enough room to store two of them at once." (115-116)

In summary, this book should please both the hardcore and casual B&S fan, as well as those just looking for a relatively quick and rewarding read.  David's attention to detail is exceptional, and many will be encouraged (or at least entertained) by his story.  

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Armageddon in Retrospect - Kurt Vonnegut (2008)

Before we proceed with our fifth Kurt Vonnegut review, allow me to make a confession: I am a twerp.  I am a twerp, and I am ashamed of myself.

"I consider anybody who borrows a book instead of buying it, or lends one, a twerp.  When I was a student at Shortridge High School a million years ago, a twerp was defined as a guy who put a set of false teeth up his rear end and bit the buttons off the back seats of taxicabs.
But I hasten to say, should some impressionable younger person here tonight, at loose ends from a dysfunctional family, resolve to take a shot at being a real twerp tomorrow, that there are no longer buttons on the back seats of taxicabs.  Times change!" (30)

This is a somewhat poorly-written first sentence, a rarity for Vonnegut.  I do lend books, so maybe I am not a twerp.  My roommate lent me this book and I lent him Galapagos and reflected that I need to review all the books by KV that I read in the past and loved.

Armageddon in Retrospect is Vonnegut's final published work.  Actually, that's wrong!  It's his first posthumous work.  And there have been 11 or 12 more since then.

It's important because it's connected quite intimately with his death.  His son, Mark Vonnegut, offers an introduction that is about as finely written as anything by his father.  The introduction itself is a true highlight.

This book took me about a week to read, and I was quite casual about it.  It has that trademark Vonnegut appeal, but it's pretty weird.  First, it opens with a speech he gave to accept an award in Indianapolis, IN in 2007, shortly before he passed away (actually I think he passed before he was able to deliver it in person--Mark Vonnegut delivered it instead).  The excerpt near the top of this review is from that speech.

Then, there are a bunch of short stories about war.  Several of these are more tragicomic extrapolations of his experience as a POW in Dresden at the end of World War II, which was also an inspiration for Slaughterhouse-Five (also near the top of my list to revisit).  Prior to the speech is a letter written from a young Vonnegut to his parents while he was a POW, and following the speech is "Wailing Shall Be in All Streets."  There is a New York Times review which posits that these two pieces are the strongest in the collection, and I am inclined to agree.  The former is a surprisingly entertaining and mordant narrative of his experience being captured, and the latter is a deeper, more detailed reflection upon it.

"Great Day" follows and this is where Vonnegut shifts into fiction mode.  It's a mix of a war story and science fiction, and to me it was still kind of confusing what was going on in the beginning, and seems most notable for its ending, which seems inevitable.

"Guns Before Butter" is about a group of soldiers fantasizing about what they are going to eat once they return home and can get off of their soup and bread rations.  They trade recipes with one another, and the German soldier in charge of their supervision chides them for it, then later gets in trouble for something over them, and ends the story indulging their talk.  It's a pleasant and mildly heartwarming lark.

"Happy Birthday, 1951" is another vaguely confusing story that has a post-apocalyptic bent to it.  It is about an old man and a boy in his charge, in a threatening environment which might be depicted vaguely like The Road.  The old man takes the boy out of their hiding place and into the forest so that he can appreciate natural beauty, and away from the perpetual state of war they live under.

"Brighten Up" is another story about war.  By this point in the collection, the reader is thinking, okay, this is Vonnegut's The Things They Carried.  But the stories aren't connected or linked in a similar way, and they're not quite as intricately crafted or emotional.  "Brighten Up" features a soldier (Louis) that extorts valuables from other soldiers and receives preferred treatment from the Germans.  It reads more like a sketch of a real person Vonnegut knew there.

"The Unicorn Trap" is one of the weirdest stories in the collection, and not necessarily the best.  But I did think it was hilarious the way the characters talked, with it taking place in the year 1067.  That aspect reminded me of "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned."

I had almost forgotten that "Unknown Soldier" was in the book, but it's very short and is about the contest that a couple wins when they have the first baby born in the year 2000.

"Spoils" is also pretty short and is again about soldiers trying to take valuables from a pillaged village.

"Just You and Me, Sammy," features a character that seems like Louis from "Brighten Up," except made even meaner and more sinister.  It is probably the most infuriating thing in this collection.  The reader will want to kill George and will most likely the find the ending satisfying.  It's also very long.  After "Wailing Will Be in All Streets," it's the most affecting.

As is "The Commandant's Desk," which seems to take off on a tangent from "Spoils." It concerns an old man and his widowed daughter dealing with American soldiers that have taken over their town.  The ending is clever, and oddly reminds me of some of Nabokov's short stories.

It ends with the title story, "Armageddon in Retrospect," which has more potential than anything else and made me laugh more than anything else but seemed to kind of peter out.  It opens with a brilliant conceit:

"Chronologically, the list should probably begin with the late Dr. Selig Schildknecht, of Dresden, Germany, who spent, by and large fruitlessly, the last half of his life and inheritance in trying to get someone to pay attention to his theories on mental illness.  What Schildknecht said, in effect, was that the only unified theory of mental illness that seems to fit all the facts was the most ancient one, which had never been disproved.  He believed that the mentally ill were possessed by the Devil.
He said so in book after book, all printed at his own expense, since no publisher would touch them, and he urged that research be undertaken to find out as much as possible about the Devil, his forms, his habits, his strong points, his weaknesses." (210)

The story goes some pretty interesting places, but I got lost in the last few pages and didn't really understand how the "Armageddon"  took place.  Still it's the kind of big gesture story that caps off a collection like he did in "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" in Welcome to the Monkey House.  Now, this book cannot compare to that one.  They are not in the same league.  But it's a pleasure for the Vonnegut maniac and casual readers alike.  I would advise one to start elsewhere if they had not read much of him, but this shows Vonnegut in his most pacifist element, speaking the most potent truth derived from his past experiences, regarding the senseless tragedy of war.